Minute Particulars

David Allen

  • New Images of the Natural in France: A study in European Cultural History 1750-1800 by D.G. Charlton
    Cambridge, 254 pp, £25.00, December 1984, ISBN 0 521 24940 6
  • Voyage into Substance: Art, Science, Nature and the Illustrated Travel Account 1760-1840 by Barbara Maria Stafford
    MIT, 645 pp, £39.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 262 19223 3

One of scholarship’s more obvious last frontiers, a stretch of terrain that remains substantially uncolonised, is the borderland between those two uncomfortable neighbours, the history of art and the history of science. The reason for this neglect, of course, is that there are next to no scholars around who can penetrate the area with any confidence. The languages spoken in the territories that abut on it are so sharply different that little traffic has been able to develop. It has therefore been left a largely trackless wilderness, a wilderness in which the timid all too easily imagine a savage specialist lying in wait behind every boulder or bush.

The one set of neighbours is more to blame than the other for this long-standing aloofness. Many scientists cultivate the arts and become well-versed in them, but movement in the reverse direction is decidedly more rare. Admittedly, the latter is more difficult, but the difficulties are made greater than they need be by a failure to seek entry to the scientific realm by the most appropriate and accessible route. That route is the one which the main mass of the Victorians had the good sense to use but which in more recent years has become rather lost to sight. It still exists, however, and it is still known by the name they knew it by: natural history. That it has fallen into such disuse is a measure of the extent to which the art world has become self-enclosed. Aesthetes tend not to own country shoes at the best of times: they are an urban breed, disdainful of even a smattering acquaintance with the labelled minutiae of that other environment.

Nevertheless there are encouraging signs that the situation is starting to change. Population pressure is beginning to lure a few hardy pioneers in search of academic lebensraum into this empty strip of land. Three years ago, apparently for the first time ever, a conference (in Sweden) was expressly devoted to reconnoitring it. Now here are two books, one by an American art historian, the other by a British professor of French, which represent major journeys of exploration deep into its heart. Professor Charlton’s is the less ambitious of the two. Because its approach is less overwhelmingly a visual one, it also offers the easier way in. Following in the footsteps of Daniel Mornet, over seventy years ago, it surveys afresh the new sentiment de la nature that arose in the later 18th century. Because this preceded the major movement that has come to be identified as Romanticism, it has tended to be seen as a mere prelude to that and thus of more limited importance. However, as the author points out, it actually represented something far wider than a shift in ‘sensibility’: it amounted to ‘an extensive re-evaluation of the world and of human life that was greatly more radical and far more recent in European thought than may sometimes be appreciated’. What was gradually in the process of being formed was essentially our present-day outlook: new ways of seeing and representing which were derived from a great variety of influences, including closer and more accurate scientific observation and economic and social pressures. The development of ‘feeling’ went far beyond a mere polar opposite to ‘reason’, just as the appreciation of nature was not restricted to what could be perceived externally. One could argue that all Professor Charlton is doing is pushing the start of Romanticism further back in time, in the same way that economic historians keep finding earlier and earlier head-springs of the Industrial Revolution. Is it really helpful, indeed, to think in terms of a distinct ‘Pre-Romantic’ period? Might it not be better simply to elongate our conception of Romanticism, by regarding what has traditionally been defined as that as merely the culminating extreme of a single trend?

One can question the boundaries that the map puts forward, however, while still finding it invaluable for the bearings it provides on the cultural scene of 18th-century Europe as a whole. Broadly speaking, the pattern we are presented with in the book corresponds to the three literary phases that Paul Van Tieghem has distinguished: a first one, starting around 1730, in which a gradual rise of interest in mountains can be detected; a second, arriving around 1760, marked by a more pronounced admiration for the lower, more pastoral slopes; and a third, from 1775 onwards, in which the bare peaks eventually become the centre of attention. Not all countries went through the whole of this visual cycle and not all of them simultaneously exhibited such phases. Here the width of Professor Charlton’s canvas proves its worth. France, he finds, lagged well behind England in the preliminary phase of awakening to natural scenery. The English were alive to pastoral attractions as early as the 1720s and markedly so by the 1740s, but it was not till the 1760s that the French showed a similar responsiveness. Again, the response to nature in its wilder, more threatening aspects – the cultivation of the Sublime – was mainly confined to England, Germany and Switzerland and is hardly in evidence in France at all. For some reason the French were far behind in penetrating beyond the comparative cosiness of the woods and fields into the starker wilds, in appreciating the beauty of mountains and the sea. In the same way they seem to have been distinctly backward in exhibiting a sympathy for animals. There is room here for some interesting speculation, which the author, perhaps wisely, eschews. Another tantalising loose end is his reminder that the Dutch were a full century ahead even of the English in the new sensitiveness to landscape – at any rate on the evidence of their painting. In the work of Everdingen and Jacob Van Ruisdael there is displayed even a precocious taste for ‘wild sublimity’. Why it failed to develop more widely, or to spread at that period to other parts of Europe, remains a mystery.

The one weak section of the book is the discussion of the influences emanating from science. The 18th century, the author would have us believe, conveniently turning his back on John Ray and that brilliant company of contemporaries in the later decades of the previous century, was the first age in which nature came under close scientific observation. That Professor Charlton is unsure of his footing on such ground is revealed by the curious double misstatement that Linnaeus’s collection was bought on his death by Sir Joseph Banks, who later bequeathed it to the British Museum (in fact, it was bought by J.E. Smith and subsequently purchased from him by the Linnean Society, in whose loving care it has remained ever since). Instead of spending his energies on other, much less relevant aspects of science, he would have done far better to have donned those country shoes and concentrated on the aspect that was central to the period.

Barbara Stafford, to her credit, has not made that mistake. As her awe-inspiring bibliography shows, her reading has extended widely into the literature of natural history. Although her journey has proceeded on a narrower front, she has thereby been able to penetrate in much greater depth. The two books are in large measure complementary. Professor Charlton lays a good deal of stress on the impact of overseas exploration and on the convergence this helped to bring about between science and art, devoting a whole chapter to what he terms ‘transoceanic perspectives’. But it has been left to Barbara Stafford to put this forward as the key to an otherwise puzzling feature which Professor Charlton has failed to spot.

The puzzle is this. How was it that there occurred in the last three to four decades of the 18th century such an upsurge in the scientific study of the detail of natural scenery? The traditional assumption has been that it was due to Linnaeus and his seductively simple methods of describing, classifying and identifying species. But that can only in part be correct, for the beginning of the upsurge unambiguously antedates the advent of the Linnaean System. We have to fall back, therefore, on some wider explanation, on a shift in mood and taste rather than a set of cognitive innovations. This shift is temptingly easy to identify with that mid-century onset of pastoral sentiment best exemplified by the cult of the Picturesque. The discovery of the aesthetic potency of natural scenery, on that view, led straight on to the fascinated scrutiny of the myriad details in which those ‘pictures’ in the course of time broke up. In her massive and closely-argued book, Barbara Stafford sets out to show, with an overwhelming array of illustrative evidence, that this is a case of mistaken paternity: it was not the Picturesque which gave birth to the fashion for investigating nature, but a quite separate current of taste which had developed in parallel with it (and which was in substantial degree its rival and antithesis). This was the vogue for factual accounts of foreign travels.

As the rise of 18th-century exploration took people into regions devoid of historical relics that were laden with associations related to the myths and legends of the West, the aesthetic creed by which they had lived for centuries began to lose its hold. Plunged into the unfamiliar, she argues, the true traveller – as opposed to the tourist – was ‘goaded into observation’ and thereby decisively escaped ‘the falsehoods of ancient imaginings of reality’. Like the scientist, with whom he had much in common (and was often identical), the explorer of the unknown areas of the globe was determined to describe or portray the tangible external reality instead of treating nature as a playground for his emotions. Similarly a child of 17th-century empiricism, the travel writer was at his most comfortable with the unadorned, workaday prose of the scientist, striving for precision above all else. This preference for the factual carried over into illustration.

The very process of objectively studying natural phenomena helped to subvert the Baconian tradition of conceiving science and poetry as opposites. Accordingly – the argument continues – science in the 18th century was increasingly seen as the ally of art. The century’s delight in the concrete particular was nevertheless the very antithesis of the Mid-Victorian obsession with detail. The one opened up, the other oppressed.

One of several subsidiary themes which historians of science will find particularly enlightening is the emergence of the ‘heroic’ landscape: vast wastes, giant bodies of water, rugged peaks, echoing caverns – a fascination with the more elemental aspects of nature, stemming from a belief in the potency of the earth’s core. Here, surely, is the origin of that great outburst of geological speculation and inquiry which was to make geology the most fashionable of the sciences in the earlier years of the century following.

Unfortunately, though, this is a book that historians of science are all too likely to fail to notice, for the publishers, oblivious of any interest in it outside the art world, have treated it to that world’s customary luxurious format, with a sumptuous furnishing of nearly three hundred plates. The result is a price way beyond the pocket of the average book-buying scholar and a physical massiveness way beyond the tolerance of any known briefcase.